By Phillip Crandall

What makes an excellent system of care for transition-age foster youth? Humboldt County believes there are no better experts than the youth themselves.

In 2008, the Humboldt County Transition Age Youth Collaboration (HCTACY) was launched in partnership with the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services, the Y.O.U.T.H. Training Project, California Youth Connection, and Youth In Mind. The goal of this initiative is to build an effective, responsive, and youth-informed system of care for transition-age foster youth.

Each year, more than 5,000 youth “age out” of California’s foster care system at 18 or 19 years of age, depending on whether they are close to high school graduation. Young people emancipating from California’s foster care system face a difficult transition to adulthood completely on their own, and are more likely to be incarcerated, unemployed and/or homeless, which results in extraordinary costs to public systems.

Humboldt’s HCTAYC youth told the county that Committing to Youth Engagement requires an environment that encourages and respects youth voices in meetings and decision-making. A seat at the table is not enough to affect true systematic change, they said, but a culture shift toward seeing youth as partners is the first step.

One of the most effective ways HCTAYC has engaged the county and community in this partnership is through Digital Stories. Digital stories offer youth the opportunity to create short documentaries about their experiences with juvenile justice, education, foster care, mental health, drug and alcohol abuse, and homelessness. Digital stories are a highly effective tool for others to learn from the perspective of the youth who have real-life experience with systems of care, but, above all, digital stories offer an opportunity for healing. The county found the process of creating the digital stories was a highly empowering experience for youth, as they were able to think about their story, tell it in their own way, and have it produced and used for the purposes of improving care for all foster youth.

In its first two years, HCTAYC authored policy recommendations to improve mental health services for transition-age youth (TAY) at the county’s psychiatric health facility, Children’s Center and crisis line. They secured two seats on the County’s mental health board dedicated to TAY. Humboldt County’s youth have also participated in events at the state Capitol in Sacramento, including testifying on May 10 at the Assembly Select Committee on Foster Care and following Legislators for Youth Shadow Day at the Capitol on May 11.

HCTAYC also provides leadership development and professional skills training to increase youth capacities in decision-making and policy setting. Youth members attend state and national conferences to develop their leadership skills and knowledge about policies affecting children and youth. Participation in the various conferences has allowed youth from Humboldt County to share their experiences with youth from different regions, and learn about larger issues facing TAY nationwide.

HCTAYC continues to build on its efforts to develop a county health and human services system that is more effective and informed on TAY issues, a strong community of youth voices in the county, and empowerment of transition age youth to shape the systems of care in Humboldt County and throughout the state.

Phillip Crandall is the Director of the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services.